Los Angeles driving itself to distraction over 'Carmageddon'

Thu, Jul 14, 2011, 01:00

The weekend closure of the San Diego Freeway is already causing panic, writes RORY JOHNSTONin Los Angeles

THE CITY of Los Angeles is in panic. Not over an earthquake, or wildfires, but a road. More specifically, the motorway leading out of LA’s west side over the hills into the next valley. It’s due to be closed entirely for two days this weekend, and the impact the wheel-based denizens of this great metropolis are expecting? Devastation.

On a normal day the motorway carries some 500,000 vehicles, and it is of course possible to take a long way round, but the assumption is that so many people will be trying to do that that the non-motorways (“surface streets”) will be jammed solid.

There are dire predictions of the city at a standstill, endless journey times, businesses losing custom worth thousands of dollars, shows playing to empty houses on Saturday night. It’s been dubbed “Carmageddon”.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa encouragingly says: “It will be an absolute nightmare.”

The road in question is the San Diego Freeway, laughably so called because it doesn’t actually go to San Diego. The California Department of Transportation, in its wisdom, is adding one lane to the northbound side of the freeway in an effort to alleviate the daily misery of afternoon “rush” hour as the traffic crawls its way to the San Fernando Valley. This entails carving chunks out of the hillsides and replacing the tall and rather elegant double-cantilever bridge at the summit that carries the skyline drive of the Santa Monica mountains over the freeway, the piers of which are too close together. Dismantling this is the project for this weekend.

The whole scheme is costing $1 billion, and whether the one extra lane will do much good is widely questioned. The experts divide evenly between those who say building more roads only attracts more traffic and those who say it’s a myth that you can’t build your way out of congestion.

So what is the advice Angelenos are being given? Stay at home. Don’t go anywhere. A county councillor has issued a set of 53 suggestions, one for each hour of the closure, for how to fill your time. Included are: hold your own home film festival; clean out the pantry; drop by your local fire or police station and say hello; go to shows by public transportation (this overlooks the point that if there is gridlock the buses won’t be moving either); stroll round your neighbourhood.

One columnist on the LA Timesassured his readers that rides on hot-air balloons and burroswere being offered to get people over the hills, and that counselling centres were being set up to help people deal with “disorientation, rage and general anxiety”. On the latter point I can’t be sure he is joking.

It’s clear that many people will indeed be camping out at home. But some calmer voices are suggesting that so many will stay home that travel will be easier than usual. They point to the jams prophesied for the 1984 Olympics, which never materialised.

While many events have been cancelled, plenty of others are soldiering on with their fingers crossed. A fun fair by the sea in Santa Monica is even trying to encourage people to travel by offering free rides to people who can prove their San Fernando Valley postal code.

The whole exercise is causing much reflection on LA’s long-ago sell-out to the car. We have a metro rail system, part underground, part surface, but its lines are too few and its stations too far apart. Seldom does it go where you want to go.

I have travelled on it myself maybe three times in 15 years. There is constant talk of the need for more public “transit” and lines are under construction now but the fact remains that it takes about twice as long to go anywhere by bus or train as by car – in normal circumstances. Los Angeles is just too spread out for mass transit to work.

I lied at the beginning when I said the bridge was being demolished. Actually only one side of it is being demolished.

That will be rebuilt, and then next year down comes the remaining half – so Hollywood, with its love of sequels, can have Carmageddon 2.